HLPR 2016 Symposium Day 2: The Evolution of Policing & Police Militarization: A Conversation with Chief Edward Flynn and Kara Dansky


By HLPR Staff

When we talk about “the police,” what do we mean? On February 9, the second day of the 2016 HLPR Symposium, the focus was on the evolution of American policing. Moderated by Christine Cole, Vice President of Community Resources for Justice, the panel featured  Milwaukee Chief of Police Edward Flynn and Kara Dansky, founder of 1,000 Arms and former ACLU Senior Counsel.

“The police” is not one singular entity, according to Milwaukee Chief of Police Edward Flynn. Chief Flynn, the first speaker, talked of the over 10,000 departments operating in the United States today. Chief Flynn emphasized good management and community policing. He noted that the police are an important social institution governed by different administrative, cultural, and historical environments.

We need to “move beyond rhetoric,” according to Chief Flynn, and instead fix policing in the cultural, social, and historical environment in which it exists. For Chief Flynn, “ill-defined problems are the worst type of policy mistake. Ill-defined problems come up with bad public policy options.” As such, Chief Flynn advocated greater context and understanding of the extraordinary array of police cultures and police management strategies. According to Chief Flynn, different threat environments necessitate appropriate tools deployed sensibly with government oversight in support of specific mission.

Kara Dansky—the second featured speaker—was the primary author of a landmark 2014 ACLU report on police militarization. She agreed with the difficulty of standardization across 10,000 departments. Dansky’s remarks focused on what “police militarization” means and what its ramifications are. In her research with the ACLU, Dansky found that police were employing military weapons  and strategies for law enforcement activities. According to Dansky, police departments were able to obtain money and equipment from federal programs with inadequate oversight.

Investigating police incident reports, Dansky and her team identified that:

  • Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams were often deployed for search warrants and drug investigations, and emergency deployments were relatively rare;
  • people of color were overwhelmingly affected by SWAT force deployment; and
  • military weapons and strategies in law enforcement increased the risk of property damage and harm to individuals.

Based on Danksy’s findings, she recommended that police forces be required to provide specific reasons for specific equipment. Dansky advocated for government oversight that encourages police to demonstrate the safety need; the compelling need for the requested equipment; and a detailed inventory of controlled equipment, such as acoustic weapons for crowd disbursement.  For Dansky, one needs to look no further than Ferguson to see a culture of policing that can make police departments look more like a military than law enforcement.

The panel speakers gave Harvard Law community members much to consider. What equipment is necessary for police officers to do their jobs effectively while maintaining safety for officers and community members? For students taking courses like criminal law and criminal procedure, these speakers’ insights will inform course discussions and can illuminate course concepts. The talk was co-sponsored by Law and Social Change and the HLS ACLU Chapter.

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